Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 133


I saw Jamie’s mouth tighten briefly at this galling reference to our homelessness, but he bowed courteously.

“And I daresay the matter is urgent, sir, since ye come to make your inquiries in person?”

“It is, rather.” The governor turned to me. “I come to beg a favor of you, ma’am, on behalf of a friend.” He looked a little better than he had the last time I’d seen him; he’d gained a bit of weight and his color was better, but the lines and smudges of strain and fatigue were still plain in his face. The eyes, though, were as alert as ever.

“This would be a sick friend?” I asked, already glancing toward the ladder that led to the loft where we slept—and where the box holding my modest pharmacopeia was kept when I wasn’t holding regular surgery hours.

“A matter of injury, ma’am, rather than illness,” Arnold said, and his mouth tightened involuntarily. “Severe injury.”

“Oh? Well, then, I’d better—”

Jamie stopped me, a hand on my arm and his eyes on Arnold.

“A moment, Sassenach,” he said quietly. “Before I let ye go, I want to know the nature of the injury and the name of the injured man. And I also want to ken why the governor comes to ye under cover of night and hides his intent from his own aide.”

The color rose in Arnold’s cheeks, but he nodded.

“Fair enough, Mr. Fraser. Do you know a man called Shippen?”

Jamie looked blank and shook his head, but Fergus chimed in.

“I do,” he said, looking thoughtfully at Arnold. “He is a wealthy man, and a well-known Loyalist—one of those who chose not to leave the city when the British army withdrew.”

“I know one of the Shippen girls,” I said, with a vague memory of General Howe’s lavish leaving party in May—God, could that possibly be only three months past? “I don’t think I’ve met the father, though. Is he the injured party?”

“No, but he is the friend on whose behalf I ask your help, ma’am.” Arnold drew a deep, unhappy breath. “Mr. Shippen’s young cousin, a man named Tench Bledsoe, was set upon last night by the Sons of Liberty. They tarred and feathered him, ma’am, and left him on the docks in front of Mr. Shippen’s warehouse. He rolled off the dock into the river and by a mercy didn’t drown, but crept up the bank and lay in the muddy shallows until a slave hunting crabs found him and ran for help.”

“Help,” Jamie repeated carefully.

Arnold met his eye and nodded. “Just so, Mr. Fraser,” he said bleakly. “The Shippens live within two streets of Dr. Benjamin Rush, but under the circumstances . . .”

The circumstances being that Benjamin Rush was a very visible and outspoken Rebel, active in the Sons of Liberty, and would certainly be familiar with everyone in Philadelphia who held similar sentiments—very likely including the men who had attacked Tench Bledsoe.

“Sit down, Sassenach,” Jamie said, gesturing to my stool. I didn’t, and he gave me a brief, dark look.

“I dinna mean to stop ye going,” he said, a distinct edge in his voice. “I ken well enough that ye will. I just mean to make sure ye come back. Aye?”

“Er . . . yes,” I said, and coughed. “I’ll just—go and get my things together, then.” I sidled through the clump of staring children to the ladder and went up as quickly as I could, hearing Jamie’s stern inquisition of Governor Arnold begin behind me.

Severe burns—and the attendant difficulties of hardened tar—and very likely fever and infection already started, after a night lying in river mud. This was going to be messy—and possibly worse. There was no telling how badly the young man had been burned; if we were lucky, it might be only splashes of tar that had reached his skin. If we weren’t lucky . . .

I set my jaw and began packing. Linen bandages, a scalpel and small paring knife for debridement . . . leeches? Perhaps; there would certainly be bruising involved—no one submitted meekly to being tarred and feathered. I tied a hasty bandage around the leech jar to keep the lid from coming off in transit. Definitely a jar of honey . . . I held it up to the flicker of light from below: half full, a clouded gold that caught the light through brown glass like candle glow. Fergus kept a tin of turpentine in the shed for cleaning type; I should borrow that, as well.

I didn’t worry overmuch about the political delicacies that had made Arnold come to me so surreptitiously. Jamie would take what precautions were possible, I knew. Philadelphia lay in Rebel hands, but it was by no means a safe place—for anyone.

Not for the first time—or the last, I was sure—I was glad that at least my own path lay clear before me. The door below opened and closed with a thump; the governor was gone.

I LOOKED AT the rather grubby sedan chair, inhaled the scent of several dozen previous users, and took a firmer grip on my cane.

“I can walk,” I said.

“It’s not that far.”

“Ye’re not walking,” Jamie replied equably.

“Surely you don’t intend to stop me?”

“Aye, I do,” he said, still mildly. “I canna stop ye going—and I wouldna try—but I can, by God, make sure ye dinna fall on your face in the street on your way. Get in, Sassenach. Go slow,” he added to the chairmen, as he opened the door of the sedan and gestured to me. “I’m coming, and I dinna want to gallop so soon after supper.”

There being no reasonable alternative, I gathered the remnants of my dignity and got in. And with my basket of supplies settled at my feet and the window slid open as far as it would go—the memories of my last claustrophobic ride in a sedan chair were as vivid as the smell of this one—we set off at a stately jog through the quiet nighttime streets of Philadelphia.

The curfew had been eased of late, owing to protests from tavern owners—and, likely, their patrons—but the overall sense of the city was still edgy, and there were no respectable women on the street, no gangs of rowdy apprentices, or any of the slaves who worked for their masters but lived on their own. I saw one whore, standing by the mouth of an alley; she whistled at Jamie and called out an invitation, but halfheartedly.

“Her pimp’ll be a-hiding . . . in the alley with a cosh . . . lay you three to one,” the chairman behind me remarked, his remarks punctuated by his breathing. “Ain’t as safe . . . as when the army was here.”

“Think not?” His partner grunted, then found breath to reply. “Army was here . . . when that officer got his . . . throat cut in a whorehouse. Reckon’s why that . . . drab’s out here in her shift.” He gulped air and went on. “How you mean . . . to settle the bet, then? Go with her yourself?”

“May be as this gentleman’d do us the service,” the other said with a brief, gasping laugh.

“It may be that he won’t,” I said, sticking my head out the window. “But I’ll go and look, if you like.”

Jamie and the forward man laughed, the other grunted, and we jolted gently round the corner and down the street to where the Shippen house stood, gracious in its own grounds, on a small rise near the edge of town. There was a lighted lantern by the gate, another by the door. I wondered whether that meant we were expected; I hadn’t thought to ask Governor Arnold if he had sent word ahead of us. If he hadn’t, the next few minutes might be interesting.

“Any notion how long we might be, Sassenach?” Jamie inquired, taking out his purse to pay the chairmen.

“If he’s already dead, it won’t take long,” I replied, shaking my skirts into order. “If he’s not, it could well take all night.”

“Aye. Wait a bit, then,” Jamie told the chairmen, who were staring at me, mouths agape. “If I havena come out in ten minutes, ye’re free to go.”

Such was his force of personality, they didn’t observe that they were quite free to go at once if they wanted, and merely nodded meekly as he took my arm and escorted me up the steps.

We were expected; the door swung wide as Jamie’s boots scuffed the scrubbed stone of the stoop, and a young woman peered out, alarm and interest showing in equal measure on her face. Evidently Mr. Bledsoe wasn’t dead, then.

“Mrs. Fraser?” She blinked slightly, looking at me sideways. “Er . . . I mean . . . it is Mrs. Fraser? Governor Arnold said—”

“It is Mrs. Fraser,” Jamie said, a slight edge in his voice. “And I assure ye, young woman, I’m in a position to know.”

“This would be Mr. Fraser,” I informed the young lady, who was looking up at him, clearly bewildered. “I was probably Lady John Grey last time you saw me,” I added, trying for a nonchalant matter-of-factness. “But, yes, I’m Claire Fraser. Er . . . still. I mean—again. I understand that your cousin . . . ?”

“Oh, yes! Please—come this way.” She stepped back, gesturing toward the rear of the house, and I saw that she was accompanied by a servant, a middle-aged black man, who bowed when I met his gaze and then led the way through a long hallway to the back stair and thence upward.

On the way, our hostess introduced herself belatedly as Margaret Shippen and apologized prettily for the absence of her parents. Her father—she said—was called away on business.

I hadn’t been formally introduced to Peggy Shippen before, but I had seen her and knew a bit about her; she’d been one of the organizing lights of the Mischianza, and while her father had prevented her actually attending the ball, all her friends had talked about her at length—and I’d glimpsed her, lavishly dressed, once or twice at other functions I’d attended with John.

Called away on business, was it? I caught Jamie’s eye when she’d said that, and he’d raised one shoulder in the briefest of shrugs. More than likely, Edward Shippen wanted to avoid any public linkage with his nephew’s misfortune—and, so far as possible, keep talk about the incident to a minimum. It wasn’t a safe time or place to make a point of Loyalist leanings in the family.

Miss Shippen led us to a small bedroom on the third floor, where a blackened, man-shaped object lay on the bed. The smell of tar was thick in the air, along with a distinct smell of blood and a sort of constant low moaning noise. This must be Tench Bledsoe—and wherever had he got a name like that? I wondered, gingerly approaching him. So far as I knew, a tench was a rather undistinguished-looking sort of carp.

“Mr. Bledsoe?” I said quietly, setting down my basket on a small table. There was a candlestick on the table, and by the light of the single flame, I could make out his face—or half of it. The other half was obscured by tar, as was a good bit of his head and neck. The clean half was that of a somewhat plain young man with a large, beaky nose, his features contorted in agony, but not at all fish-looking.

“Yes,” he gasped, and pressed his lips tight together, as though even the escape of a single word jeopardized the tenuous grip he had on himself.

“I’m Mrs. Fraser,” I said, and laid a hand on his shoulder. A fine shudder was running through him like current through a wire. “I’ve come to help.”

He heard me and nodded jerkily. They’d given him brandy; I could smell it under the aromatic reek of pine tar, and a half-full decanter stood on the table.

“Have you any laudanum in the house?” I asked, turning to Peggy. It wouldn’t help that much in the long run, but a large dose might get us through the worst of the preliminaries.

She was quite young—no more than eighteen, I thought—but alert and self-possessed, as well as very pretty. She nodded and disappeared, with a murmured word to the servant. Of course, I thought, seeing her skirts whisk out of sight. She couldn’t send him for it. The laudanum would be with the other household simples, in a closet under lock and key.

“What can I do, Sassenach?” Jamie said softly, as though afraid to break the injured man’s concentration on his pain.

“Help me undress him.” Whoever had attacked him hadn’t stripped him; that was lucky. And most of the tar probably hadn’t been boiling hot when it was applied; I smelled burnt hair, but not the sickening stench of cooked flesh. Pine tar wasn’t like the asphalt road tar of later centuries; it was a by-product of turpentine distillation, and might be soft enough to be daubed without needing to be boiled first.

What wasn’t fortunate was his leg, as I saw at once when Jamie peeled back the sheet covering him. That was where the smell of blood had come from; it spread in a soggy smear on the bedclothes, black in the candlelight, but copper and scarlet to the nose.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said under my breath. Tench’s face was dead white and streaked with sweat and tears, his eyes closed, but he grimaced, hearing that.

Jamie set his jaw and drew his case knife, which was sharp enough to shave the hairs on a man’s arm. Sharp enough to slice through shredded stocking and damp breeches, spreading the stiffened fabric aside to show me the damage.

“Who did that to ye, man?” he asked Tench, gripping him by the wrist as the injured man reached a tentative hand downward, seeking the extent of the damage.

“No one,” Tench whispered, and coughed. “I—I jumped off the dock when he set my head afire, and landed on one foot in the mud. It stuck well in, and when I fell over . . .”

It was a very nasty compound fracture. Both bones of the lower leg had snapped clean through, and the shattered ends were poking through the skin in different directions. I was surprised that he had survived the shock of it, together with the trauma of the attack—to say nothing of a night and part of a day spent lying in the filthy river shallows afterward. The macerated flesh was swollen, raw, red, and ugly, the wounds deeply infected. I breathed in gently, half-expecting the reek of gangrene, but no. Not yet.

“He set your head afire?” Jamie was saying incredulously. He leaned forward, touching the darkened mass on the left side of the young man’s head. “Who?”